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Climate Change: The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions

Institutionalizing Unsustainability
by Hayley Stevenson
UC Press, 2013

By Farisa Khalid

Books on climate change often try to invoke fear, panic, and dismay with unnecessary sensationalism, but in Institutionalizing Unsustainability, Hayley Stevenson’s finger-wagging is stern, unadorned, and convincing. Directed toward policymakers, Stevenson meticulously chronicles 25 years of policy failures. Policymakers, Stevens argues, created of a set of legal loopholes that enable governments and corporations to set the bare minimum of climate change targets while ignoring long-term climate deterioration.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the most prominent agency directing policy targets since 1992, decided at a 2010 conference in Cancún that future global warming should be allowed to only rise 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) relative to pre-industrial levels. Setting the definitive limit for climate change was a bold and dramatic step. It provided a concrete number to encourage countries, agencies, and policymakers to set goals, but the conference failed to create a process to reach that goal. It was just another well-intended outcome without the teeth to make a difference, Stevenson argues:

Beginning with the UNFCC the shift in focus from historical to future emissions has altered the balance of responsibilities and rights. … The present system induces states to comply with global norms in ways that actually exacerbate unsustainable development. By shifting attention away from historical emissions to future emissions, and from domestic mitigation to transnational mitigation efforts, a technical representation of the climate change problem has been institutionalized.

Stevenson is a politics lecturer at the University of Sheffield—a city familiar with the environmental changes brought on by heavy industry. She examines three countries and their efforts to produce economic growth while curbing pollution: Australia, a major coal exporter; Spain, an importer of gas, oil, and coal; and India, which Stevenson describes as an “inefficient fossil fuel consumer.” In each case, politicians made plucky attempts to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but in the end dithering and capitulating to business interests led to only feeble steps forward.

Great Barrier Grief

For the first of the three case studies, Stevenson chose Australia for its rare combination of large geographical size, small population, and very high carbon footprint per capita. Australia accounts for just 0.3 percent of the global population but is responsible for 1.6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, making Australians some of the highest polluters in the world. Yet the continent is also subject to drastic climate change effects. The sustained rising of ocean temperatures and gradual coastal erosion is bleaching the Great Barrier Reef.

This past January, extreme heat waves across New South Wales caused bushfires to tear across the region, and these bouts with heat and fires have been increasing over the past 15 years. The estimated the cost of the 2009 fires in Victoria was $4.4 billion. “In what has become known as Black Saturday,” as Stevenson describes the fires. “173 Australians perished … while several thousand lost homes and community infrastructure in the southeastern state of Victoria … [this] event delivered a devastating reminder of people’s vulnerability to extreme weather events, which are expected to increase in rate and intensity throughout the century.”

Stevenson blames Australia’s decades of industrialization and exploitation of the land’s vast mineral resources for its long disregard of the environment. White Australians, she argues, inherited from the British a sense of superiority toward the land and its indigenous people. Stevenson, citing the agricultural historian Don Garden, calls this attitude, “Christianity, capitalism, and contempt.”

But in this century after multiple climate disasters, Australia has begun to pair environmental stewardship with clear goals. In July 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard introduced a carbon tax that required companies emitting over 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually to purchase emission permits. Still, this legislation is not enough to offset the two centuries worth of rampant greenhouse gas emissions as Australia developed industrially from its penal colony roots into the Victorian era and into the 20th and 21st centuries. The stalwart Victorian mining towns of Cabramurra, New South Wales, Yallourn, Victoria, and Leinster have unbeknownst to the public, contributed the most to Australia’s sizeable, irrevocable carbon footprint.

India’s Climate Woes

India’s approach to climate change comes across more favorably. As a country who has spent a significant part of the 20th century overcoming colonialism and feudalism and who still contends with poverty and sectarian violence, India’s commitment to the environment is focused and unflinchingly direct compared to the dillydallying that goes on in more developed countries. While Australia jumped on the climate change bandwagon in the late 1980s after a century of development and growth, India jumped on board around the same time, after only a few decades of industrialization.

During U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to India, his speech at the India Habitat Center in New Delhi on Sunday, June 23 focused almost exclusively on global warming in India, telling Indians that the world’s energy-sustainable future lay in their hands: “Mother Nature, in her own way, is telling us to heed some warnings” and “When the Himalayan glaciers are receding, threatening the very supply of water to almost a billion people, we all need to do better.”

But most Indians are already fully aware of the effects of climate change on their lives. The summer monsoon is often the only time a substantial amount of rain falls in India to stabilize crop yields. With global warming, these monsoon rains become more irregular—leading either to drought or flash floods.

India also has vast amounts of indigenous coal and is the world’s third largest supplier outside of China and the United States. Unfortunately, coal is one of the most polluting and harmful to greenhouse gas emissions. India also has another problem with greenhouse gas emissions that’s specific to developing countries and that’s the frequent use of indoor cooking. Women or young girls living in huts in the villages or corrugated tin shacks in urban slums stoke a fire in their house often fueled by wood or animal dung. “The use of such fuels may produce few greenhouse gases but nevertheless entails significant health risks, risks that fall disproportionately on women and girls, who are generally responsible for cooking and collecting fuels. … India still faces a huge human development challenge in the years ahead.”

Part of the problem came from India’s post-Independence policies of the 1950s and 60s that focused heavily on industrialization. The country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was inspired by the Soviet Union’s industrial growth during the 1920s and 30s. From 1952, five years after independence, to 2000, industrial expansion in India more than doubled, thanks in part to Nehru’s initial push and the ambitious economic policy reforms of the early 1990s.

It was more than four decades after independence when India made progress on environmental initiatives. In 1989 Rajiv Gandhi created the Planetary Protection Fund to monitor India’s progress in keeping with global greenhouse gas targets. The PPF marked the first high-profile attempt of any South or Southeast Asian country to set clear policy goals for curbing climate change at a time when the issue was considered a sideshow. In truth, the PPF did little in terms of short-term energy targets, but its long-term impact was that it set the groundwork for future policymaking initiatives on global warming in India.

In 2008, Manmohan Singh pushed a plan for more renewable energy sources and water conservation. But critics were quick to point out that the plan didn’t mention specifics about reducing transportation emissions, one of India’s biggest concerns. The prevalence of cars and consequently higher emissions is reflective of the growing income disparity in the country. “On a per capita basis, India’s energy consumption is one of the lowest in the world,” Stevenson explains. “Yet this fact masks the reality of large inequalities in domestic energy consumption. … The carbon footprint of the consuming class is only slightly smaller than the global average of five tones of carbon dioxide, well above the globally sustainable average of 2.5 tons.”

Rain, Grain, Spain

After Australia and India, Stevenson takes us to Spain, where sea levels have been increasing by 3 millimeters a year as the glaciers in the Pyrenees shrink (88 percent have melted in the past 100 years). The climate in the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula is becoming hotter, drier, and more “African,” while the north is becoming more arid and “Mediterranean.” These changes damage Spain’s fishing and agriculture industries, particularly its harvests of wine and olive oil, a major source of export revenue. Those mellow white wines may soon disappear as Spain gets hotter and hotter.

Spain leapt on the climate change bandwagon in 2002 when it ratified the Kyoto Protocol to limit its emissions not above 15 percent of the 1990 carbon dioxide levels. And even bolder, in 2008 the government pledged a 12 percent target of using renewable energy as their primary energy source. One of Spain’s distinguishing pushes to mitigate the impact of global warming is its unique commitment to these renewable sources. A substantial part of the Spanish climate is sunny, enabling the productive use of solar energy. The PS10, an 11 megawatt solar thermal tower plant in Seville, built around 2006, is one example of Spain’s bold commitment to pushing through with this initiative. There are also the various “wind farms,” the hosts of giant sleek steel windmills, scattered across the Galicia to the Basque Country, generating electricity across both cities and small villages. Don Quixote would have a new, high-tech giant to slay.

Stevenson emphasizes that Spain’s induction into the European Union in 1986 was a significant stimulus to its climate change policymaking. Before then, Spain, like Australia, focused on growth, industrialization, and the expansion of influence in Latin America. By the early 1990s, reformers and activists like Joaquín Costa tried to transform Spain into an ecologically sustainable green space. “Our climate is among the worst, our soil among the least fertile, our sky among the most harsh and stingy, our life among the most distressing and difficult, our nation among the most hungry and shabby,” Costa said. “If in other countries, it is sufficient for man to help Nature, here it is necessary to do more: it is necessary to create her.”

Stevenson’s main criticism about Spanish policymaking with climate change is that it was too slow to get going in the 1980s and 90s. By the time Spain caught up with its compliance of the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, much more could have been done to curb fossil fuel emissions. Even though Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero ensured that a Spanish-language version of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was made available to schools nationwide in 2006, the 77 percent growth in transport emissions from 1990 to 2004 would already take its forceful, deleterious toll on Spain’s climate and landscape.

At the heart of Stevenson’s Institutionalizing Unsustainability is the fear that the well-meaning push toward climate change mitigation over the past 30 years will continue to dawdle on, unable to make the changes needed to lessen the deleterious effects of sustained greenhouse gas emissions. Some of the achievements of Australia, India, and Spain are admirable, but in each case, they were too little too late. “Ultimately, the paradox of global climate governance will not be successfully overcome by the decisions and actions of state elites and bureaucrats,” Stevenson cautions. “Only an expansion in public awareness and a subsequent demand for transformative action rather than piecemeal reformist politics will produce an effective response.”

The positive outcome is that the effects of climate change will compel average citizens in a civil society to be more vocal about the condition of their planet. Stevenson says now with climate change obvious to everyone, there is “hope of rebuilding public momentum.” Though it’s only a sliver of encouragement at the end of a long litany of policymaking ineptitudes.

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Farisa Khalid as an editorial assistant for World Policy Journal.

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